Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Iran Nuclear Deal Divided Our Jewish Community: A Tochecha for our Discourse

The following is the sermon I delivered on the first day of Rosh Hashanah 2015/5776 at Congregation B'nai Israel in Toledo, Ohio.

A new rabbi comes to a well-established congregation. Each week on Shabbat, a fight erupts during the service. When it comes time to recite the Shema, half the congregation stands and the other half sits. The half that stands say, "Of course we stand for the Shema. It’s the credo of Judaism.

Throughout history, thousands of Jews have died with the words of the Shema on their lips." The half that remains seated say, "No. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, if you are seated when you get to the Shema you remain seated."

The people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, "Stand up!" while the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing, "Sit down!" It’s destroying the whole decorum of the service and it’s driving the new rabbi crazy. Finally, it’s brought to the rabbi’s attention that at a nearby home for the aged is a 98-year-old man who was a founding member of the congregation. So, in accordance with Talmudic tradition, the rabbi appoints a delegation of three, one who stands for the Shema, one who sits, and the rabbi himself, to go interview the man. They enter his room, and the man who stands for the Shema rushes over to the old man and says, "Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to stand for the Shema?"

"No," the old man answers in a weak voice. "That wasn’t the tradition."

The other man jumps in excitedly. "Wasn’t it the tradition in our synagogue to sit for the Shema?"
"No," the old man says. "That wasn’t the tradition."

At this point, the rabbi cannot control himself. He cuts in angrily. "I don’t care what the tradition was! Just tell them one or the other. Do you know what goes on in services every week — the people who are standing yell at the people who are sitting, the people who are sitting yell at the people who are standing."

"That was the tradition," the old man says.

This is a joke, of course, but, these days, I can commiserate with the rabbi. In 2015, it's sadly become the tradition that half of the Jewish community is arguing with the other half; they’re talking past each other, and this heated debate has got me as frustrated as the rabbi in the story.

This past summer, the discourse in the American Jewish community over the Iran Nuclear deal has been horribly gut-wrenching. I have found myself cringing at the battles that have been waged -- Jew vs. Jew. The rhetoric has been cruel, venomous and downright dangerous to the future vitality of our Jewish community.

The NY Times reported that the attacks on Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat of New York, since he announced his support for the nuclear accord with Iran have been so vicious that the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Anti-Defamation League both felt compelled this week to publicly condemn Jewish voices of hate.

On the other side, three Jewish Democrats in the House who oppose the deal released a joint statement denouncing “ad hominem attacks and threats” against not only supporters like Mr. Nadler but also Jewish opponents, who have been accused of “dual loyalties” and treason.

Greg Rosenbaum, the chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said, “We are on the verge of fratricide in the Jewish community, and it has to stop. He noted that there are Jews avoiding organizational meetings, and even religious services, simply to avoid discussing Iran.

The campaign within the Jewish community over the Iran deal has been so intense and bruising, that the President of the United States that to step in to chastise the Jewish community over the devastating discourse. He said, "We’re all pro-Israel, and we’re all family... Like all families, sometimes, there are going to be disagreements. And sometimes people get angrier about disagreements in families than they do with the folks who aren’t family."

Some of you might be familiar with Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. He's a veteran Middle East peace negotiator. Regarding the way American Jews have divided into warring camps over the Iran accord, he said recently in a PBS interview: "American Jews worry for a living. And the reality is that never in my 40-some years have I seen a community more energized, more conflicted and at times more reluctant to engage in what one Jewish leader described as fratricide."

My friends, I'm exhausted over this debate. I'm sick and tired of the divided Jewish community who has forgotten how to speak civilly among each other. I'm saddened that we've allowed this issue to so divide us to break us apart. I'm worried for our future. More than the treat of Iran getting a nuclear bomb... and EXPLOSION, I've become more scared of an internal threat in our Jewish community... we're on the verge of an IMPLOSION.

Yes, this is a sermon about the Iran Nuclear Deal, but I promise it won’t be a political sermon. Whether you’re for or against this deal won’t matter. It was never my intention to talk about the Iran Deal per se; rather, this morning I want to talk about our Community. Our American Jewish community. I want to talk about my fears for our American Jewish community.

You see, Jewish factionalism has always been at its sharpest when threats from the outside require just the opposite. The best solution to defend Israel and the democracy we hold so dear from an evil tyrant like Iran is for us to unify. To stand together in solidarity. But sadly, we do the opposite. Remember, the famous story of Hanukkah was just as much about a civil war among the Jews as it was a Jewish struggle against an outside evil oppressor.

Am I fearful for Israel’s continued existence in the dangerous region of the Middle East? Of course I am. Am I fearful for my Israeli brothers and sisters with an Iran that wants her wiped off the map and will stop at nothing to see that become a reality? Of course I am. Am I fearful for the continued rise of an extremist Islam that doesn’t seem to value life the way we do and will continue to commit acts of terrorism – both in Israel and even here in America? Of course I am.

This morning, however, I want to talk about my fear for us. For OUR family. For the way we have allowed the debate over Iran’s nuclear situation to splinter us. To break us apart at our core. This hot button issue has created a Jew vs. Jew. It is time for what is known as a Tochecha.

In Vayikra 19:17, in the Holiness Code section, we have the well known commandment of the Tochecha, the rebuke. It says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and incur no sin because of this person.” This imperative that we rebuke our fellow Jew appears in the same section of the Torah as many of the other moral imperatives of Judaism, such as loving your neighbor as yourself and not placing a stumbling block in front of the blind.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: "A person should love rebuke since as long as there is rebuke in the world, ease of mind comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil departs from it, as it says, ‘Those who rebuke find favor, and a good blessing falls upon them’ (Proverbs 24:25)…Rabbi Yonatan said: “Whoever reproves their neighbor without any ulterior motives is worthy of a portion of the Holy One Blessed be He, as it says, ‘One that rebukes another finds favor with Me.’ And not only that, God draws over that person a cloth of love’ (Proverbs 28:23).

 While it is important to rebuke, it is never easy. Because of the way I have witnessed our Jewish community behaving, specifically over this past summer as we all debated the Iran Nuclear deal with such vigor and contempt, I think it’s time to rebuke our community collectively.

The Iran Deal, technically the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 and the European Union, is a serious matter. There are pros and cons to both sides of it. Organizations from AIPAC to many Jewish federations came out strongly opposed to this deal, arguing that while a deal to disarm Iran from nukes is essential, this was not the right deal. Other organizations came out strongly for the deal, arguing this was the best way to contain a dangerous Iranian regime and to wait for the perfect accord would be imprudent and perilous.

It gets complicated as Iranian sanctions would be removed, a lot of frozen assets would return to the Iranian government with concerns they would use these funds to sponsor terrorism, and of course, there remain concerns about side deals that were brokered behind the back of Secretary of State John Kerry and nuances of the deal including breakout periods, inspections and warnings. To complicate matters, it's a detailed and confusing deal. Even though many people who feel so strongly one way or another about the Iran Deal haven't even bothered to read it, they are ready to debate it with fervor and harsh arguments, unwilling to concede any points or be swayed by cogent points.

Full disclosure, I have been against this deal since I first read it, but I also am able to take a step back and see that at this point it would be futile to continue opposing it. I also recognize the difficult situation that many politicians found themselves in when determining how to vote to block this deal. But let’s focus for a moment on the community reaction. Not the American Jewish community’s response to the Iran Nuclear Deal, but the way we allowed ourselves to fight with each other, demonize each other, call each other names, accuse those who were for the deal of being traitors to Israel, and accuse those who were against the deal as putting Israel’s relationship with the U.S. at risk.

A political deal whose intent was to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons had the effect of fissuring our community. We allowed this deal to divide us. We used the deal as a litmus test for each other, for the Jewish organizations we support, for the politicians we elected. The other day, the NY Times went so far as to list the Democrat congresspeople who pledged to vote against this deal and what percentage of their constituency is Jewish. The media has not been helpful. They are also making this into a Jewish decision. It’s more complicated and nuanced than that… and our response to it has been abysmal.

 These High Holy Days are both personal and communal. Next week on Yom Kippur we will fast as individuals. We will confront our own shortcomings and sins in our own individual experience. In the Confessional, the Vidui, we will confess our sins communally. It is not about what I did or did not do, it is about what we have done or not done as a people. We are a communal religion.

The two core confessional prayers of Yom Kippur are the Ashamnu and the Al-Het. Both set in the plural. Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu; We abuse, we betray, we are cruel... And Al het shehatanu lifanecha; We have sinned against You... Being a part of a communal religion is one of the most difficult concepts for many American Jews to understand.  People ask, why do I have to say, We abuse, we betray, we are cruel - I didn't abuse anyone, I didn't betray anyone, I was not cruel, so why do I have to confess to these sins, they are not my sins? The answer is that it is not about you, it is about us. Perhaps we need a specific Vidui for our sins of detestable discourse during the Iran Nuclear Accord debate!

The Hebrew word for congregation is Kehillah, and a synagogue is known as a Kehillah Kedoshah, a Holy Congregation. That is what we are, we are a Holy Congregation. That is my goal for us, to live our lives as a Kehillah Kedoshah, not just when disaster strikes, but all the time.

Community is not something that you can find once in a while, it comes from active engagement in an ongoing fashion. It is about connecting your life to the lives of others; it is about celebrating together and about supporting one another in times of need. It is about engaging in a level of discourse we can be proud of. We may disagree strongly with each other on very important topics, but talking to each other with respect... even arguing with each other with respect, will ensure our continued unity and vitality as a people.

So on these Yamim Nora’im – these Days of Awe, as we come together as a community to pray together with everyone else present, contemplate what being part of our Kehillah Kedoshah really means. I think that a large part of our responsibility of being part of the American Jewish community is our commitment to act in achdut – brotherhood – with each other. That means mutual respect and dignity. We cannot allow a nuclear treaty to divide us. There are enough entities out there that want to rip the Jewish people apart. Let’s not do it to ourselves.

Before we can diffuse a nuclear Iran, we have to diffuse our discourse. Shanah Tovah and G'mar Chatimah Tovah. May you be sealed in the Book of Life for a good year!

1 comment:

Scott Rothstein, Holland Ohio said...

I attended the service and heard the sermon first hand. I appreciate the opportunity to express my opinion about the sermon.
Overall I give the speech "two thumbs up" as it contained insightful humor, and was informative. Furthermore, Rabbi Miller kept it balanced and relatively non-partisan- not an easy task to accomplish. I say relatively non-partisan because I thought it was inappropriate to inject President Obama into the conversation, (regarding the quote about "family") as if the President was merely a disinterested observer bringing some lofty insight to the Jewish community's internecine struggles about the deal with Iran. I acknowledge that President Obama's quote fit the speech, but it was a serious Faux Pas to use it given our President's role in adding gasoline to the fire concerning the very controversy that has earned us the Rabbi's rebuke. Was I the only one who saw it that way?
Speaking of the rebuke, with all due respect to Rabbi Miller and his altruistic intentions, while a “rebuke” makes sense in a generic or theoretical sense, or perhaps in Detroit/Ann Arbor where people may be more polarized, had Rabbi Miller been aware of how our community addressed the Iran crisis he might have included the Toledo Jewish Community’s experience, not as a cautionary tale but as an example worthy of praise.* To be clear, even within our small community, there exists a diverse range of thoughts and opinions regarding how to address Iran. As a community we accepted the challenge to address the issue. At times emotions ran high on both ends of the spectrum. However, after respectful debate our Federation publically took the position not to collectively endorse one side or the other, but rather to be a source of ongoing education for the community. We exhorted our community to hold themselves accountable for how they feel and express their individual opinions whether it be a letter to their congress person or the local newspaper. I’m sure there are exceptions; however I believe it actually brought our community closer together. *(NOTE: As a visiting Rabbi, I do not expect Rabbi Miller to be aware of these things.)
Full Disclosure: I sit as the Chairperson on the JCRC, Toledo Ohio (Lay Person) but I am writing this response as an individual.

Scott Rothstein
Holland, Ohio